ZRCV: The Giant That Almost Was

zrcv-4447ucThe second Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, RADM E.J. King (right) would have relieved retiring radmsRADM W.A. Moffett (left) in 1933 even if Moffett had not been lost with Akron. Upon taking office, RADM King had little use for the politician’s vacillation on replacing the lost Akron and the mothballed Los Angeles. Two years later, when the DELAG asked permission to operate their soon to be finished LZ-129  to and from Lakehurst (with an Opa-Locka, Florida weather option), King instituted a rotation of US Navy airship officers to fly with the Germans in a liaison role. By the time he left the Bureau to return to sea duty as the Hindenburg’s season was in full swing, the airship political situation had worsened. It was clear those few liaison officers were the only rigid airshipmen who were gong to get refresher training in dirigible operation, a seemingly inexplicable situation given the large investment in infrastructure to support a modern flying carrier, and the Japanese looking to expand their control over China. Frustrated, King wrote in part, “… it seems to me that there is no necessity for any change in the wording of present existing and approved naval airship policy. The Department, through its inaction in carrying out the said approved policy, has placed itself in the unenviable position of not knowing its own mind, or else being unwilling to accept its responsibilities with regard to Lighter-Than-Air. It should be one thing or the other.”

The SNAFU was at the highest level,  the Commander-in-Chief in the White House. Documentation shows that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose firm had lost a lawsuit to Goodyear-Zeppelin in 1924, had never forgiven that insult. USS Akron had overflown Roosevelt’s first inauguration and USS Macon _45383540_006644371-2had actually delivered timely newspapers and airship-canceled mail to the famous philatelist on vacation in mid-Pacific, so the “imperial President” had not completely avoided viewing the Goodyear-Zeppelin products, snubbing Macon’s christening and taking care never to be photographed with them. (It would be easier to find forbidden photos of Roosevelt in a wheelchair than that President with an American airship.) Goodyear President Paul Litchfield’s press releases about how American helium could dominate worldwide airship industry, be vital to US defense, etc., fell on especially deafened ears.

ab-cookThe Germans laid the LZ-130’s keel on June 23rd, 1936, as Hindenburg was making transatlantic trips a routine luxury. E. J. King rotated back to sea duty and A. B. Cook (photo) ascended to head the Bureau of Aeronautics. It was almost October by the time Lieutenant Raymond Tyler stepped aboard LZ-129 for his training flight. Newsmen hadn’t noticed that passengers, expecting to arrive via connecting flights, had to be bused when all airplanes were grounded; the Hindenburg lifted off into the fog right on time. Tyler returned on LZ-129’s 45th flight. RADM Cook then donned civilian clothes to join Hindenburg’s only American joyride, as Standard Oil sponsored what has been called the “millionaires’ flight.”

Under Cook, the LTA design branch continued design studies for “the next airship” even as the Durand Committee studied the larger question of airships in America. Goodyear had been busy for years applying lessons learned and testing new ideas in rigid airship design. However, once Roosevelt had been elected for an second term, some concluded that there was but one hope for the US Navy to utilize its flying carrier knowledge base. The Navy would have to design and build the flying carrier itself, perhaps, something like it did back in the days of the ZR-1.

cp-burgessBuAer genius C. P. Burgess (very camera shy, but seen here) set about bringing the rigid’s operational experience to his drawing board. Noting Hindenburg’s success, Burgess abandoned Arnstein’s deep triangular rings in favor of a more conventional wire-reinforced bulkhead design. Unlike the Akron/Macon design which dated from the mid 1920s and only added the seaplane-carrying option later on, ZRCV was a purpose-designed flying aircraft carrier. Its earliest versions proposed to carry nine Bu Aer design #124 scout planes, but this was quickly updated to the racy new Northrop BT-1 dive bomber, equipped with a skyhook.  Only one fuzzy, small line drawing of this design was reproduced in a now out-of-print book.  NAA member Herman Van Dyk, who saw the Hindenburg fly over his Dutch town and pursued airship history for 60 years, has carefully re-created and detailed the Burgess ZRCV for C.E. Rosendahl’s tell-all book, SNAFU.


The new 750 hp Allison engines had been on the test stand when Macon went down, so they had been perfected in time for two of them to be geared together in a each ZRCV power car. So while the number of engines was the same as the ZRS-4 and 5, the return to exterior power cars made for aBT-1 more efficient arrangement that had more power than the Hindenburg. Studying the Macon post mortem” it is clear Burgess applied lessons that the operators wanted learned. Helium cells were more uniform in relative size, and there were 18 of them. The single keel put the greatest structural strength at the backbone, reinforced to support the BT-1 dive bomber, skyhook version.

129-car-hangarVery little about the ZRCV has been published, but the Burgess’ design was circulating as Hindenburg (left) was deep in his first season overhaul and refit, which included adding its airplane handling trapeze. Since LZ-130 was looking to be finished later that year and it was known the LZ-131 was going to up the capacity / capability ante to over 9 million cubic feet, the Burgess ZRCV was actually quite conservative in light of the helium penalty. As he awaited the Durand Committee conclusions, BuAer chief Cook forwarded Burgess’ design and criteria to the Navy’s General Board, recommending: “It is my opinion that in the ZRCV type herein described lies the most promising future utility of the large rigid air-ship for naval purposes. . . . The size airship herein described is in a sense an ultimate conception…  whether or not the second step could extend to the 9.5 million-cubic-foot size would depend upon developments in the airship field in the next few months.”

dsc00362The “developments” Cook was awaiting was the release of the Durand Committee report. That body of distinguished experts published their “magnum opus” in five parts. By the spring of 1937 those concerned had read its contents which, although it delivered a “Scotch verdict,” recommended further airship development. There seemed to be hope that the old ZR-3, still being exercised on Lakehurst’s mooring equipment, could get new cells and return to the skies as a training ship. There had once been discussion of adding “orange peel” doors to Lakehurst’s Hangar #1 to accommodate a stretched Macon. This also would have been necessary to house the coming LZ-131 when it brought is 100 passengers. Such an addition would have allowed #1 to house the ZRCV, even if the new airship’s parts had to be stamped out at Philadelphia’s Naval Aircraft Factory and trucked for assembly there, like ZR-1 of old. Whatever else was being considered, Cook continued the USN-DELAG liaison-training co-op, with LT Raymond Tyler selected for the first May trip on the luxury airship.

zrcv-gameMeanwhile, Japan’s lust to harness China’s vast resources was expanding beyond its domination of Manchuria. Within months Japanese airplanes would be the first to cross an ocean to drop gravity bombs as Prime Minister Tojo began open warfare in China. What if the Japanese Army coup of 1929 had been successful? Or, suppose FDR had been able to use that Japanese invasion to sidestep the Neutrality Act and come to the aid of China with military action? Hardly as riveting as a surprise attack on American soil, the harsh realities of the vast Pacific hiding one of the world’s most powerful Navies might have overcome the political resistance to rigid airship scouts. The ZRCV could have been built as C.P. Burgess envisioned it. (The creators of the card-driven game “Airships at War” worked with such a scenario. Shown here, the game’s compelling illustration is true to Burgess’ vision. The web site for the game’s publisher is sonicquillpubs.com.)

20150626_113703Charles E. Rosendahl, by 1937 a senior Commander and in charge of Lakehurst, appears to have revised his thinking to align with BuAer Chief Cook as to the large rigid’s primary role as an airplane carrier. Later, Rosendahl actively lobbied for the ZRCV, writing, “By some 18 successive steps including the SHENANDOAH, AKRON and MACON, the rigid airship grew to a volume of 7,000,000 cubic feet… Like surface craft, the airship is a displacement vessel; to make either type more versatile in range, equipment, etc., greater volume is required. Airship technicians are convinced that we can today build a successful airship of 10,000,000 cubic feet capacity or half again the size of the biggest yet built… Another American development… is an inestimably valuable feature possessed by the large airship of readily launching and recovering airplanes in flight, each of these operations having been performed more than 3,000 times by our Naval personnel, by day, by night, in smooth weather and rough, entirely independent of the ship’s course and the wind direction… It is obvious naval application makes of the airship a high-speed, long-range carrier of Naval airplanes. It startles many to learn that this operation of planes to and from the parent airship is accomplished with greater facility than the corresponding operations with the surface aircraft carrier… With its own airplanes extending its horizon most effectively, the airship can scout, search, patrol, and observe enormous sea areas. Operating from the outlying parent airship as a base day after day, these planes expand their fuel and flight time in useful areas rather than largely in getting to their work and back again… A surface cruiser is generally capable of about 3 days’ sustained speed of 30 knots; and airship of even the moderate-sized MACON class could cruise about six days at 60 knots. The relative areas that could be scouted are not difficult to calculate. Add to the airship side, the advantage of its own elevation and its airplane extension and the airship advantage grows enormously. Carrying ten superior attack-bombers, the 10,000,000 cubic foot airship at a cruising speed of 50 knots (or 60 land miles per hour) could cruise non-stop for 10,000 miles!”

Sadly before LZ-129 could land on May 6th 1937 his fabric caught fire, the service’s first and only passenger fatalities were suffered, and the ship was a total loss. Graf Zeppelin was returning from South American when the LZ-129 burned. Captain Hans Von Schiller insisted the Graf be turned around and launched on her next scheduled departure, May 11th, but he was over-ruled. The accident is not recorded as eliciting comments from the White House, but with the only flying rigid airship suddenly grounded, the ZRCV effort suddenly had no visible active contemporary. Even with the German investigators pinpointing the fabric’s ignition source, it seemed by the summer of 1937 that continued passenger operations would demand helium. That spelled the end for LZ-127, impractical to be changed over. Calls for keeping the well-filmed accident in perspective were ignored (and are much to this day) so all rigids, including the proposed ZRCV, were bathed in a new, unflattering light even as the Germans quietly applied the lessons they learned re-engineering the LZ-130.

C.E. Rosendahl battled FDR’s Secretary of the Interior in the press, though Harold Ickes was obviously just doing his President’s bidding when he refused to sign off on keeping the helium promise. Of course the accident had nothing to do with the American ZRCV effort, but opponents had a fresh excuse to drag their feet all the more. Frustrated that after the technological advances  made during the “years of confusion” had not inspired Congress to over-rule the President, Rosendahl wrote, “it is nevertheless difficult to understand why a country which has produced such aeronautical triumphs in the heavier-than-air field should manifest such indifference to the distinctly American modern helium-filled lighter-than-air vessel in either our sea-going air commerce or our national defense.”

Meanwhile, Goodyear-Zeppelin had been busy developing the next airships, both a civilian luxury liner, cargo ship and flying carrier. Advancements in materials and techniques were employed and lessons learned in operations were applied as the designs evolved in the mid to later 1930s. The drawing atop this page first appeared in a Goodyear p.r. booklet 1938-39 (date judged by the composite photos imagining K-2 patrolling the Panama Canal) showing F9C-2s in the foreground. It was updated at least once with the BT-13/SNJ like envisioned hook-on airplanes seen in the illustration. Many elements of their flying carrier design can be seen in their simultaneous commercial airship design, a later version which is illustrated here.

During “tests in the years of confusion” there are many hints the Goodyear-Zeppelin design team employed new structural materials and developed different design elements. Starting with the basic girder structure, seen at left in its test rig, this basic element shows a close similarity to LZ-130 girders shown in the photo at right, under construction in Germany at about the same time.

Like the C.P. Burgess design shown on this page, the new G-Z airships would have returned to the more traditional reinforced keel and wire-spoke style ring bulkheads. Fully expecting their years of research and experimentation to be utilized for the good of the country, G-Z anticipated an order for a new flying carrier. The team assembled a quarter-bay girder test section and mounted it on the structure of their Akron Airdock.  (It was found when cleaning up the building in preparation for the high-altitude airship. This photo ran in the LTAS newsletter.) Below are the actual plans for the Goodyear-Zeppelin flying carrier, first made public in the winter 2015 issue of The Noon Balloon, magazine of the Naval Airship Association.

Their ultimate flying carrier design, as engineered by Goodyear Aircraft in 1935-37, shown here as approved in January 1938,  was repeatedly revised in the coming years. Unlike the Akron-Macon design which dated to the mid 1920s and only had sea/air plane facility added, this was from the outset a flying carrier. Note the unique arrangement of both the scout bombers and the fighters arranged along the center keel. As we point out in our page detailing planes for ZRCV & ZRS the movie the airplanes shown were contemporary military craft, rather than any less likely, purpose-built optimized designs.

While the design was not specifically dependent upon these particular models being employed, the same general shapes and relative sizes would be required. The “bomb stowage” seems rather fanciful owing to the difficulty for not only lifting such weights around the keel but also with the rather limited access to the airplane’s underside.

This view, seemingly different than the main hull arrangement drawing, more clearly shows the rather wide external keel for airplane stowage. Bunks for air wing personnel fit conveniently to round out the space above the scout bomber’s wings. Since these would be little more than heavy tent-equivalent enclosures, one wonders how they would have been heated.

The airplane storage details show general outlines of the types of fighters and bombers then envisioned. Shortly thereafter, Don Douglas left Northrop and took the XBT-2 (which became the SBD) with him, and formed Douglas Aircraft.

The few details outlined in the Goodyear-Zeppelin p.r. booklet inspired this magazine cover and story, though the artist has taken quite a liberty with the size of the scout bombers. (One wonders if he is leading the reader to conclude the airplanes enter at the stern for servicing and are re-launched forward?)  Hundreds of thousands of people must have seen this issue, and joined Goodyear’s President Paul Litchfield in asking (as in the title of his book), “Why? Why Does America Have No Rigid Airships?”

The renamed Goodyear Aircraft continued to believe they would one day receive an order for their flying carrier, though a ZRCV had no chance under the Roosevelt administration. In this “Dutch tilt” photo the on-the-quiet presentation made in 1944 to then-RADM Rosendahl and CAPT C.V.S. Knox, Goodyear’s Paul Litchfield and chief designer Karl Arnstein have their backs to the camera. (Note the “bow planes” hull revision tacked to the back wall; bow planes would be tested, and rejected, on non-rigids.)

The re-named Goodyear Aircraft continued to push the flying carrier during WWII… in one illustration, the airship was to carry Goodyear-built Corsairs!

Read on to The Flying Carrier: The Goodyear Aircraft Proposals


Skip ahead to USS Long Island Theory & Design Part One


Read on to ZRS: The Major Motion Picture


Read on to our 2015  DARPA Proposal for a Modern Flying UAV Carrier

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